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What Can Teachers Learn From Target?

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Today’s New York Times Magazine has a pretty scary article about how the retail giant Target tracks what’s going on in the lives of customers and uses that information to get us to buy more stuff from them.  It’s definitely worth reading the whole piece.

As I mentioned, it’s scary — in addition to being creepy. Nevertheless, the article does highlight some strategies that can be used for good in the classroom and not only for not-so-good things in the quest for corporate profit.

Here are three points that struck me in the article:

The Effectiveness of Inductive Learning: Target uses inductive learning to analyse information, look for information, and apply and extend what it learns — the typical steps in the inductive learning process:

For companies like Target, the exhaustive rendering of our conscious and unconscious patterns into data sets and algorithms has revolutionized what they know about us and, therefore, how precisely they can sell.

Inductive learning is an extremely effective teaching and learning process that’s used by other companies as well, including Google Translate. Last year, a major study written about by Robert Marzano found inductive learning to be far more effective than direct instruction in the classroom.

The Importance Of Automaticity & Chunking: The article discusses Target’s efforts to shape shopping habits, and discusses automaticity and chunking. It includes a good story that I will be using with my students when we discuss why I ask them to use explicit reading strategies (asking a question, visualizing, etc.) often when we’re reading texts:

Take backing your car out of the driveway. When you first learned to drive, that act required a major dose of concentration, and for good reason: it involves peering into the rearview and side mirrors and checking for obstacles, putting your foot on the brake, moving the gearshift into reverse, removing your foot from the brake, estimating the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels aligned, calculating how images in the mirrors translate into actual distances, all while applying differing amounts of pressure to the gas pedal and brake.

Now, you perform that series of actions every time you pull into the street without thinking very much. Your brain has chunked large parts of it.

Reflecting On Cues & Rewards: The author’s discussion of cues and rewards, and how to use them to create habits, was particularly intriguing to me:

The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic…..

Luckily, simply understanding how habits work makes them easier to control. Take, for instance, a series of studies conducted a few years ago at Columbia University and the University of Alberta. Researchers wanted to understand how exercise habits emerge. In one project, 256 members of a health-insurance plan were invited to classes stressing the importance of exercise. Half the participants received an extra lesson on the theories of habit formation (the structure of the habit loop) and were asked to identify cues and rewards that might help them develop exercise routines.

The results were dramatic. Over the next four months, those participants who deliberately identified cues and rewards spent twice as much time exercising as their peers. Other studies have yielded similar results. According to another recent paper, if you want to start running in the morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always putting on your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (like a midday treat or even the sense of accomplishment that comes from ritually recording your miles in a log book). After a while, your brain will start anticipating that reward — craving the treat or the feeling of accomplishment — and there will be a measurable neurological impulse to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.

Charles Duhigg, the article’s author (who also is publishing a book on the topic) made this personal:

I wanted to lose weight.

I had got into a bad habit of going to the cafeteria every afternoon and eating a chocolate-chip cookie, which contributed to my gaining a few pounds. Eight, to be precise. I put a Post-it note on my computer reading “NO MORE COOKIES.” But every afternoon, I managed to ignore that note, wander to the cafeteria, buy a cookie and eat it while chatting with colleagues. Tomorrow, I always promised myself, I’ll muster the willpower to resist.

Tomorrow, I ate another cookie.

When I started interviewing experts in habit formation, I concluded each interview by asking what I should do. The first step, they said, was to figure out my habit loop. The routine was simple: every afternoon, I walked to the cafeteria, bought a cookie and ate it while chatting with friends.

Next came some less obvious questions: What was the cue? Hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? And what was the reward? The taste of the cookie itself? The temporary distraction from my work? The chance to socialize with colleagues?

Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings, but we’re often not conscious of the urges driving our habits in the first place. So one day, when I felt a cookie impulse, I went outside and took a walk instead. The next day, I went to the cafeteria and bought a coffee. The next, I bought an apple and ate it while chatting with friends. You get the idea. I wanted to test different theories regarding what reward I was really craving. Was it hunger? (In which case the apple should have worked.) Was it the desire for a quick burst of energy? (If so, the coffee should suffice.) Or, as turned out to be the answer, was it that after several hours spent focused on work, I wanted to socialize, to make sure I was up to speed on office gossip, and the cookie was just a convenient excuse? When I walked to a colleague’s desk and chatted for a few minutes, it turned out, my cookie urge was gone.

All that was left was identifying the cue.

Deciphering cues is hard, however. Our lives often contain too much information to figure out what is triggering a particular behavior. Do you eat breakfast at a certain time because you’re hungry? Or because the morning news is on? Or because your kids have started eating? Experiments have shown that most cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people or the immediately preceding action. So to figure out the cue for my cookie habit, I wrote down five things the moment the urge hit:

Where are you? (Sitting at my desk.)

What time is it? (3:36 p.m.)

What’s your emotional state? (Bored.)

Who else is around? (No one.)

What action preceded the urge? (Answered an e-mail.)

The next day I did the same thing. And the next. Pretty soon, the cue was clear: I always felt an urge to snack around 3:30.

Once I figured out all the parts of the loop, it seemed fairly easy to change my habit. But the psychologists and neuroscientists warned me that, for my new behavior to stick, I needed to abide by the same principle that guided Procter & Gamble in selling Febreze: To shift the routine — to socialize, rather than eat a cookie — I needed to piggyback on an existing habit. So now, every day around 3:30, I stand up, look around the newsroom for someone to talk to, spend 10 minutes gossiping, then go back to my desk. The cue and reward have stayed the same. Only the routine has shifted. It doesn’t feel like a decision, any more than the M.I.T. rats made a decision to run through the maze. It’s now a habit. I’ve lost 21 pounds since then (12 of them from changing my cookie ritual).

I think this point can be very, very helpful in the classroom with students who want to break habits they have identified as ones they want to change (not to mention with us teachers who might have a few, too).

I’m going to put some thought into it and develop a lesson plan, which I’ll share here at a later date.  If you have some ideas of what I should considering including, please leave a comment.

I guess many things can be applied for ill… or for good…..

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Technology Bits Bytes & Nibbles | What Can Teachers Learn From Target?

  2. Larry, I recently read Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit and immediately saw the connection to education and students, so I Googled to find out if someone else may have, and I stumbled on your Blog. I totally agree with your comments. I really think that Duhigg’s theory of the “habit loop” is the missing link that many classroom teachers have not considered. The Alberta study is evidence that it is not enough to tell kids that it is important to have good work/study habits and still not enough to have students who want to develop the learning skills and work habits, Students need strategies on how to do that. They need to understand how their brains are wired and how difficult it is to break a “bad habit”. That is why I like Duhigg’s book. He puts into plain language how to go about making a change and sticking to it. For many students understanding what the cue’s and rewards are first is so important for changing the response/action to a craving to ie. text message in class or spend all night on facebook. Thanks for sharing.

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